It Was Much More Than Minor Pastime : Baseball: Pacific Coast League in the '30s, '40s and '50s was the stuff of glamorous memories.


If Hollywood's big day in the baseball world was overshadowed by a more gripping event happening in Detroit, somebody forgot to mention it to the folks out here.

In Detroit on May 2, 1939, Lou Gehrig missed his first game after 2,130 consecutive appearances with the New York Yankees. But in Hollywood, the significance of Gehrig's iron-man performance was momentarily ignored. These Stars had their own show to put on.

So on a sunny afternoon, the stars of Hollywood and the Hollywood Stars turned out at Gilmore Field--the new home of the city's beloved triple-A minor league baseball team--to see the first game played there.

Robert Taylor and Cecil B. De Mille, both on the team's board of directors, couldn't make opening day. But Bing Crosby, Jack Benny and Al Jolson were there. Rudy Vallee brought his 16mm home-movie camera. And Dia Gable, recently divorced from Clark, sat right down front, "smack behind home plate."

In the reserved section, there was Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom. In the box section, Buster Keaton. On the field, Jane Withers played batter, Joe E. Brown clowned as catcher and actress Gail Patrick, the wife of Brown Derby restaurant and team owner Bob Cobb, threw out the first ball. Yes, the Cobb salad was named after him.

And thus began a time when baseball glittered on a field that seemingly produced more schemes than dreams, and certainly more stars than winning teams.

If you were traveling by streetcar, you would board the S car downtown going east, then transfer at 42nd Place to the V car going south on Vermont. That would take you eventually about a mile east of the Coliseum to Wrigley Field, at Avalon Boulevard and 42nd, where the Los Angeles Angels played from 1925 to 1961.

The Angels, one of six original teams of the PCL, long preceded the Hollywood Stars. They began playing in 1903 at Washington Park in downtown Los Angeles, at about 8th and Hill Streets. The Angels were bought by the Chicago Cubs in the early 1920s and moved to newly built Wrigley Field in 1925.

The Hollywood Stars arrived from Salt Lake City in 1926 and shared Wrigley Field with the Angels until 1935. Then, apparently because of a rent dispute, the Stars moved south to San Diego and became the Padres.

In 1938, the San Francisco Missions moved to Los Angeles and became the new Hollywood Stars. They played at Wrigley Field for one season, then at Gilmore Stadium for a month while awaiting the opening of Gilmore Field, which was built next to the multipurpose stadium at Beverly Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. (Television City of CBS is there now).

In the early days of the League, team owners scouted and cultivated their own talent, then sold players to major league teams. Later, PCL teams became affiliated with major league organizations and served as farm clubs. But the consensus is that few in the West thought of the PCL as a minor league.

"To a lot of us out here, we looked at the PCL as a major league--a third major league," said Bob Hunter, a baseball Hall of Fame sportswriter who covered both the Stars and Angels for the Examiner and is now a columnist for the Daily News.

He used to travel with the teams by train.

"We had great, great times," he said. "One year the Stars finished dead last, so at the end of the season a bunch of movie stars--George Raft, Frank Lovejoy, the three Ritz Brothers--got together and gave the players a big dinner at the Florentine Gardens in Hollywood. They gave the players a wristwatch and a big send-off."

There were only eight major league clubs each in the American and National Leagues before expansion in 1961, and each team had two or three triple-A teams. With competition that fierce, minor league baseball players stayed awhile, and fans got to know them.

"One thing about those teams is that the guys would make a career of playing on the teams, not like now, where they just stop in," said Times columnist Allan Malamud, who, as a youngster, frequently took the trolley car to Wrigley Field.

The year was 1950. The Hollywood Stars wore shorts, the stars of Hollywood still wore hats and Jim Healy, now a radio personality at KMPC, made $5 a game as the Stars' public address announcer at Gilmore Field.

"I averaged about $18.50 a week because they would have a seven-game series and go on the road for a week," Healy said.

It was that year that Star Manager Fred Haney surprised the baseball world by outfitting his team in shorts and light rayon shirts. Haney claimed the uniforms were no stunt, but instead would increase speed and add to the comfort of the players. But all Healy and Hunter remember seeing are bony knees.

"When I saw those uniforms I thought, 'Holy smoke, they will rip their skin to pieces,' " Healy said. "I thought they would scar their bodies when they slid. But they wore sliding pads.

"And I don't know how old Manager Fred Haney was, but he was a sight in those shorts. I guess he figured if his players were going to wear them, he would too. So here was bony-kneed Fred Haney, in shorts, walking out to the mound."

Added Hunter: "The players hated those uniforms. Branch Rickey, who was then the general manager of Pittsburgh, implemented the uniforms for the entire organization. Hollywood was a minor league team of Pittsburgh. The uniforms only lasted a couple of years."

Gilmore Field held 12,000 spectators, and the Stars, also known as the Twinks, drew well from Los Angeles' growing Westside. The team, though not a consistent contender until the 1950s, when it became affiliated with the Pirates, produced many colorful stars.

From 1926 through '35, Frank Shellenback won 295 games throwing his famous spitball. Outfielder Frank Kelleher, perhaps the most popular Star of all time, set the club record with 226 home runs from 1944-54. And base stealer Carlos Bernier, (1952, 54-57) would at times get on his knees, begging an umpire to change a call.

Bill Mazeroski played half a season with the Stars in 1956 before being called up by the Pirates. Dale Long, a Star from 1953-55, also was called up by Pittsburgh and went on to hit home runs in eight consecutive games, a record tied by Don Mattingly in 1989.

Babe Herman joined the Stars after 12 successful seasons in the majors, eventually retiring from the team and baseball in 1945 to spend time with his family on his turkey ranch in the San Fernando Valley.

But the Stars on the field were far outnumbered by those in the stands.

"I remember George Burns and Gracie Allen came to the (Stars) games regularly, whenever they weren't working," Healy said. "As the PA announcer, I would get there an hour before the game, and George and Gracie would already be there, sitting alone in the box seats on the third-base line, watching batting practice. I'd think, 'Gee and I thought I got here early.' "

Healy remembers Gilmore Field as a great ballpark.

"Small and intimate," he said. "The stands were about 15 feet from the baselines. Nobody fouled out. There was so little room between the lines. It was like a softball park.

"It was better than Wrigley, which was a smaller replica of Wrigley Field in Chicago. There the stands gradually faded way, way back, taking you away from the field, instead of rising straight up. The stands went up at Gilmore Field, so you were closer."

There was another game played at Gilmore Field in conjunction with baseball. This one, though, occurred outside the stadium.

"The Hollywood group and the business guys all used to stand outside the stadium before the game and place their bets," said Melvin Durslag, a Times columnist who wrote for the Examiner then.

"There was probably some bookmaking betting, but it was mostly man to man. My father used to bet, but it was gentlemen's betting. You'd meet after the game to settle--nobody welshed on his bet."

Across town at Wrigley Field, the Angels, also known as the Cherubs, were far more successful than their Hollywood counterparts and produced their own stars. Angel first baseman Steve Bilko, who played in 1955-57, between stints in the majors, was so popular it is said that Phil Silvers named Sgt. Ernie Bilko, the major character in his television series, "You'll Never Get Rich," after him.

"Bilko was by far the biggest star to come out of the Angels," said Malamud, who grew up as an Angel fan. "One year he hit 56 home runs. He was a big guy, colorful. I don't think he talked too much, but he hit the ball a mile."

Hunter says Arnold (Jigger) Statz, Angel center fielder who played for the club 18 years and then managed the team from 1940-42, was one of the best fielders ever to have played the game.

"He would take two steps up the brick wall with his spikes, leap up and catch the ball." Hunter said.

Statz used to cut a hole in the pocket of his glove and catch the ball with a partially bare hand.

Fay Thomas, one of the first forkball pitchers, played for the Angels eight years before becoming a Hollywood Star. In 1934, Thomas was 28-4.

Outfielder Lou (the Mad Russian) Novikoff played from 1939-40 and was known for his bat as well as his voice. He often sang the national anthem for the crowd before the game.

There was Broadway Bill Schuster, an Angel shortstop in the early '40s, who regularly combined zany stunts with baseball, climbing up the backstop or sliding into the pitcher's mound--during the games. Sometimes he ran to third base instead of first.

And first baseman Chuck Connors, who played for the Angels from 1951-53 before his stint with the Chicago Cubs, Brooklyn Dodgers and his Hollywood stardom. Even Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda pitched for the Angels, in 1957.

"Lasorda was pitching for the Angels against the Stars, and he started a fight with Forrest (Spook) Jacobs," Hunter remembers. "Yes, that was his name, Spook Jacobs. It led into a free-for-all."

Lasorda was originally sold by the Dodgers on a trial basis to the Kansas City Athletics in 1955. They shipped him out to the minor leagues and he was eventually sold to the Angels by the Denver Bears. By then the Angels were a Dodger farm club. So once again, Lasorda was playing for the Dodgers. With the Angels, his record was 7-10.

Hunter loved Wrigley Field. "It drew the biggest crowds," he said. "It held 20,400 people and sold out many times.

"And there was an intense rivalry between the Stars and the Angels. Lots of fistfights."

When Brooklyn Dodger owner Walter O'Malley in 1957 first visited Wrigley Field, which he had recently purchased from the Cubs, along with the team, he told Durslag that there was "a cathouse operating right across the street."

"And there was," Durslag said. "O'Malley had seen enough of that type in Brooklyn. He told me the final straw in Brooklyn was when he saw a drunk urinate into a beer bottle and throw it out on the field. That had a lasting impression on Walter. He wanted to leave that type of environment."

Pat Ray, a Times writer and copy editor, was a batboy at Wrigley in the early 1940s. He lived a block away from the park on 43rd Street from the mid-'30s until 1941.

"It was a nice area, but by the time O'Malley got there it wasn't that great," said Ray, whose father, Bob Ray, covered both the Stars and the Angels for The Times. Many of the Angel players lived in the area also.

O'Malley moved his Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958, and decided that his major league team would play at the Coliseum instead of Wrigley Field. He also moved the Angel franchise to Spokane, where it remained a Dodger farm team.

When the American League expanded in 1961, Gene Autry and his partner, Bob Reynolds, were awarded the Los Angeles franchise, and the new Angels played in Wrigley Field in 1961 before moving into Dodger Stadium--the Angels always called it Chavez Ravine--the next season as a Dodger tenant.

"O'Malley and Autry didn't get along very well," Durslag said.

"O'Malley was charging the Angels for watering and everything else. I remember Autry saying the Dodgers were doing 75% of the business and the Angels were paying for 50% of the toilet paper."

Durslag said that Del Webb, who then owned the Yankees, put together a deal to move Autry's Angels to Anaheim.

Autry had wanted to move to Long Beach, but it didn't work out.

"Del Webb was a hustler," Durslag said. "He told Autry he would set up the Anaheim move if (Webb) could build the stadium. So he did. That was his commission."

The Angels moved to Anaheim in 1966.

Meanwhile, with little fanfare, both Gilmore and Wrigley Fields were torn down.

"In 1958, when Gilmore was torn down, nobody cared because they were excited about the Dodgers," said Dick Beverage, author of two books on the Stars and Angels, and president of the PCL Historical Society. "In 1966 or '67, when Wrigley was torn down, they had forgotten about it."

There is a nursery now where Gilmore Field stood. And there is a youth center on the site of Wrigley Field.

"It wasn't until later that people said, 'Well, that's a shame,' " Healy said.

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